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I first saw the Catoblepas in the AD&D 2nd Edition Monster Manual, and I was very surprised to learn it’s not a “lolrandom” original monster. It’s a legendary creature from Ethiopia, described by Roman historians Pliny the Elder and Claudius Aelianus. I can’t tell whether that makes it part of Ethiopian or Roman folklore - I’m sure someone more qualified than me can make that distinction. Their name is derived from a Greek word meaning “to look downwards”. The plural of catoblepas is catoblepones.
Wikipedia speculates that the original descriptions of the catoblepas might be referring to a wildebeest or gnu, and you need only look at Wayne England’s illustration above to know he’s really done his homework. A D&D catoblepas looks like a wildebeest with a horrible nightmare where its neck and head should be. Their long necks are always bent down due to the great weight of their heads, which is where their name comes from.
D&D catoblepones are creatures of shadow and death. They are native to the Shadowfell but have a natural ability to wander between worlds. People believe they appear in places that are about to be stuck by tragedy, which is kinda true since the beast’s breath and gaze are deadly. They’re associated with the Raven Queen and sometimes show up as part of her entourage.
Despite their reputation as beasts of ill omen, catoblepones are often the targets of hunting expeditions. Knights hunt them because defeating such a dangerous beast brings great glory; others perform ritual hunts in honor of the Raven Queen. Success in these ritual hunts might please the goddess enough that she grants a blessing to the hunters. A catoblepas can be tracked by the trail of destruction it leaves, and the Raven Queen is particularly pleased by hunters who make an effort to mend this damage as they pursue their quarry. To them, she might grand a mighty boon such as returning someone to life or giving a living person the ability to foresse their own death and avoid it.
A slain catoblepas reforms in the Shadowfell after a while, and begins wandering again. Their arrival in a region is often preceded by supernatural phenomena such as hauntings.
We get two varieties of catoblepas here.
A classic beast of ill omen, the catoblepas harbinger appears in places full of hubris to announce they’re about to be hit by famine, war, or other tragedies. It feeds on pride, anger, despair and other negative emotions, growing ever larger over time. The poisonous gases it exhales are a byproduct of this vitriolic diet. I wonder if one of these showed up in the throne room of the Nerathi emperor before the empire fell.
The Harbinger is a Large Shadow Beast, and a Level 10 Elite Controller with 220 HP. It lumbers along at speed 6 and has Resist Necrotic 5 and Blindsight 5.
Like all catoblepones, the Harbinger emanates the Raven Queen’s presence, an aura (5) that causes anyone inside who fails a death saving throw to lose HP equal to half their bloodied value. By the standard rules, any creature who hits their bloodied value in negative HP dies automatically, so this aura makes PCs die after at most two failed saves instead of the usual three.
When drawn into a fight the harbinger gores with its horns and uses its poison breath (close blast 5, recharge 5+), which obviously does poison damage and inflicts ongoing poison damage.
If someone within 5 squares of the harbinger willingly tries to move away from it, they’re subject to the beast’s Final Glance, an opportunity action that targets Will. A victim hit by the glance takes 5 necrotic damage and becomes Vulnerable 5 to all damage (save ends). When they pass that save, they take another 10 necrotic damage.
This is an older specimen that usually hangs out in places where dead souls cross over into the Shadowfell, absorbing all the negative emotions that accompany them. This steady diet has made it grow much larger, and reshaped its face so it looks like a tragedy mask.
Tragedians are Huge Shadow Beasts, and Level 18 Elite Controllers with 360 HP. They’re mostly identical to harbingers, with larger numbers. They also have a couple of new abilities.
The first is a Withering Gaze used as an active attack against a bloodied enemy. It targets Will, does a tiny bit of necrotic damage, and weakens (save ends). After the first failed save, the target is also blinded. After the second, the target’s hit points drop to -1. And yeah, this does mean they need to make death saves and it does subject them to the Raven Queen’s Presence aura. This power recharges whenever no enemy is affected by it.
The second new ability is Inevitable Call, a minor action that automatically hits an enemy within 20 squares and pulls them 3 squares closer to the Tragedian.
Catoblepones are sticky melee controllers. The basic Harbinger has good powers to prevent PCs from getting away from them, opening them up from attack from the other monsters in the fight. It pairs really well with monsters that can do heavy damage, like brutes and some artillery, because you want to force the PCs to roll death saves as soon as possible. The Tragedian is all that and more. It has powers to draw PCs closer to itself and perhaps even force them into negative HP early.
I used to dismiss these monsters outright because I found the name “catoblepas” ridiculous, but their 4e incarnation has really evocative lore! I’m a fan now.